Kashima Antlers’ phenomenal end to last season has whetted, not sated, their appetite for more success, insists manager Masatada Ishii.
Antlers rose from the ashes of an inconsistent J. League campaign that saw them finish third in the overall table — 15 points behind first-place Urawa Reds — to knock out Kawasaki Frontale in the playoff semifinal before edging Urawa in the final to claim an eighth league title on away goals.
But Antlers weren’t finished there. The newly crowned champions went on to storm through the Club World Cup in December, becoming the first Asian side to reach the final before succumbing 4-2 to Real Madrid, having taken the European heavyweights to extra time.
Kashima then beat Frontale 2-1 in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day, and now Ishii is targeting a clean sweep of trophies in 2017 as he prepares to open the new J. League season at home to FC Tokyo on Saturday.
“We played games last year against the kind of teams that we don’t normally play, and we’ve brought in some new players over the winter,” said Ishii, who also led Antlers to a 3-2 win over Urawa in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup last Saturday. “The players who have come in have settled in quickly and I think we’re in good shape.
“We’ve added some good players to the squad so the competition for places will increase. That gives the players more motivation. Also, the experience of playing in the Club World Cup last year has given us the motivation to play in it again. So our first goal this season is to become Asian champions.”
Antlers lost influential playmaker Gaku Shibasaki to Spain’s Tenerife over the offseason but added Brazilians Leo Silva from Albirex Niigata and Pedro Junior from Vissel Kobe, as well as experienced South Korean goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae, among others.
With the J. League reverting to a single-league format this year, Ishii knows that his team will have to improve upon last season’s third-place finish. Antlers lost their last four games of the regular season before spectacularly turning things around in the playoffs, but striker Yuma Suzuki insists he never stopped believing his team could win the title.
“We’re strong when it comes to one-off games, so we were always confident we could do it,” said the 20-year-old. “We always believed that we could win. The fact that we actually did it proved that Antlers always have that strength.
“We’re not playing at 100 percent yet but we’re getting stronger. We really came together last year and we need to keep that going this year. We achieved some good results last year and that will give us confidence.”
Antlers began their Asian Champions League campaign on Tuesday with a 2-0 win over South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai. No Japanese team has won the competition since Gamba Osaka in 2008, but Suzuki is determined to lift the trophy with a place at this year’s Club World Cup also up for grabs for the winner.
“The ACL is the one title that this club has never managed to win, so we want to win it and get back into the Club World Cup,” said the striker, who made three appearances off the bench and scored one goal at the Club World Cup, where Antlers beat Auckland City of New Zealand, Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa and Atletico Nacional of Colombia before losing to Madrid in the final.
“It was a great experience. Each opponent we faced played with a different style, and the fact that we were able to deal with that made it a very valuable tournament for us.
“Of course (Madrid’s Cristiano) Ronaldo was amazing, but (Madrid striker Karim) Benzema really impressed me too. He’s great at using his body to hold up the ball and he’s a great player.”
But before Antlers can dream of making another appearance on the world stage, first there is the small matter of defending their J. League title. The loss of Shibasaki could have a negative impact on Kashima’s chances, but Ishii is confident that his team can cope.
“I don’t like to think of players leaving as just a negative thing,” he said. “It gives other players the chance to show what they can do. There are big expectations. Of course I always want the players who are in the team to do well, but now I’d like them to do even better.”
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